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Obesity now common in low-income Indians too

Obesity is no longer confined to India’s prosperous elite, as more than one in four middle-aged Indians in the low and middle income group now has unhealthy midriff bulge, according to a new study.

This means that obesity has trickled down to all levels of society, fuelled partly by India’s rapid economic growth in recent years, suggest the researchers of the study published in the journal BMJ Open.

The researchers base their findings on a nationally representative survey of more than 7,000 people in 2010 from 6 Indian states – Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Maharashtra, and Karnataka.

The study was authored by Sudipta Samal and Ambarish Dutta of Asian Institute of Public Health in Odisha and Pinaki Panigrahi from the University of Nebraska Medical Centre in the US.

The survey, which included measurements of height, weight, waist circumference, and blood pressure, was part of the international Study on global Ageing and adult health (SAGE), and involved only those aged 50 and above.

About 80 per cent of the participants either had no paid job or lived on traditional subsistence or unskilled labour. Three quarters were either illiterate or had only a primary school education.

Over two thirds (68 per cent) were on very low, low, or middling incomes, and three quarters lived in rural areas.

Analysis of the data showed that in all, 14 per cent of the sample were overweight, defined as a BMI of more than 25kg per square metre, while more than one in three (35 per cent) had a midriff bulge (central adiposity), defined as a waist circumference of more than 90cm for men and more than 80cm for women.

One in two of those in the top earning third of the sample had an unhealthy midriff bulge, but so too did more than one in four (28 per cent) of those in the remaining poorer two thirds of the sample.

Women were particularly prone to central adiposity, with more than two thirds (69 per cent) of those among the most affluent and almost half (46 per cent) of those on low to middling incomes carrying an unhealthy spare tyre.

Indians aspire to big body size as a mark of prosperity, say the researchers, and this is likely to fuel the culture of excess calorie intake, especially as generations of Indians have historically experienced chronic food shortages, they suggest.

However, coupled with the country’s growing purchasing power as a result of its rapid economic growth, this is likely to prompt a rapid rise in obesity across all levels of society, they said.

“Population based promotion of appropriate lifestyles, with special emphasis on women, is required to counteract prosperity driven obesity before it becomes too entrenched and expensive to uproot,” they said.